Stephen Spencer, Archbishop William Temple: A Study in Servant Leadership
Published by SCM Press 2022
Reviewed by Chris Baker, Director of Research, William Temple Foundation
This latest text from Stephen Spencer is another biography of Archbishop William Temple, who died in 1944, and joins a small but enduring list of biographies published to date. This year is an auspicious year to bring out such a volume, focussing attention as it does on the 80th anniversary of the publication of the work that Temple is perhaps still best known for, namely Christianity and Social Order. This biography, focusing on what Temple’s life says about a model of public leadership and service within a framing of servant leadership is also incredibly timely, coming at a time when political leadership in this country has been proved to be eye-wateringly corrupt and tainted by self-service, sleaze, and purposefully orchestrated division. Will public confidence in political leadership ever recover at this time of multiple crises—which range from the cost of living, poverty, and collapse in public services to environmental disaster and a new European war in Ukraine? Also, as I write this review, controversy and disunity have surfaced at the 2022 Lambeth conference over the issues of same-sex marriage and LGTBQ+ rights. I wonder how Temple’s approach to leadership and reconciliation would have played out amidst the current political and ecclesial splits shaping our public discourse? Inevitably, these thoughts were playing in my mind as I read this latest addition to the Temple oeuvre.
Spencer’s biography starts with a brief overview of the theme of servant leadership. There is a clear root to Jesus’ radically kenotic view of leadership along the lines ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all’ (Mark 10:43-44). But Spencer augments this allusion with two influential contemporary exponents of the concept (Robert Greenleaf and Kenneth Blanchard). These additional facets include providing vision and direction in ways that shape the present but define the future by having clear goals and acknowledging what others have done and offering clear and concise support when changes are needed—both of which are underpinned by a wider sense of hope and trust in what God is bringing to the world.
Spencer then cleverly moves to a description of Temple, arguably at the height of his leadership powers, caught on a news film report addressing a packed Albert Hall in September 1942 as the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury on the theme of ‘The Church Looks Forward’. In the audience are leading politicians of the day, including those who will serve as ministers in the post-war Labour Government, as he lays out the principles for post-war reconstruction. Like a movie that starts at the end for dramatic effect, the rest of the book offers us the backstory as to how this pivotal point is reached.
Spencer moves with well-signposted chapters through the early stages of Temple’s life and career, suggesting a nagging desire to question and confound the easy and accepted trajectory for his life at the heart of the elite establishment, including a stellar academic career in philosophy at Oxford and becoming headmaster at an early age of a prestigious public school. Two events challenge that orthodoxy. First, is Temple’s experience of being initially rejected for the priesthood on the grounds of theological unorthodoxy, and second, his placement at Toynbee Hall and the Bermondsey Mission, sent there by Edward Caird, the master of Balliol College, Oxford. The book then becomes more gripping and intriguing. We move through to Temple’s middle and late phases of life, where a meteoric rise to being Bishop of Manchester at the time of the post-war General Strike, and his theological and political reflections on the nature of sin, evil, compassion, and social justice begin to meld into his formidable expression of public leadership.
Here, Stephen Spencer’s acuity as a theologian, as well as an historical biographer, comes to the fore as he expertly unpacks the trajectory of Temple’s thought from its Idealist roots to his Christian Realism, profoundly shaped by the influence of contemporaries such as Reinhold Niebuhr and by his calling to shape society in accordance with Christian principles. This approach required a deep pragmatism allied to a deep vision and the ability to hold together multiple perspectives in tension. Chapter 6, on the theme of ‘Changing Views of Human History’, is an expertly charted essay in philosophical thought, whilst Chapter 10, ‘From Logic to Imagination’ does the same from a theological perspective.
Spencer’s archival diligence skilfully brings Temple alive as a person, a thinker, and a leader. The structure of the book holds the interplay between life experience, its impacts on theological and political thinking, and pattens of leadership in firm view. Finding intimate, touching, and vulnerable anecdotes alongside sustained passages of deep thought as well as incisive and honest appraisals of Temple by his contemporaries is one of this book’s strengths. Spencer is not averse to presenting Temple as a work a progress, rather than the finished article. However, this merely serves to reinforce the phenomenal achievements of a person who, in the end, drove himself to an untimely death through the stress induced by the range of his work and mission. Spencer also highlights the cultural, and in some cases colonial, assumptions of Temple’s thought and idiom which may struggle to find purchase in the contemporary world
In summary, Temple’s leadership comes across as visionary and humble, confident but collaborative, and increasingly fearless in calling out God’s truth to institutional power, both within the church and the wider world. Above all, Temple allowed his personal experience of prayer and spirituality to be the touchstone for his decision making, a spiritual journey that he was also able to articulate and share as part of his leadership, and which continues to inspire others to this day. Yet at the end of this fine and engrossing book I was left with a nagging feeling. It is presented as a study in church leadership for a principally church audience, but should there not be a more ultimate purpose? I think this book has huge and important things to say to secular politicians and business leaders, because, as Spencer so skilfully draws out, Temple’s thinking and approach spilled out into the wider world and touched and shaped many from outside the church. When so much of our public leadership seems paralysed by compromise and corruption on the one hand, and timidity on the other, then here is a voice that needs to be listened to again. I hope churchy imagery and endorsements, fine as they are, do not prevent this book from reaching a properly wide audience.